More businesses getting Collier permits online to save money, time

Government heating, ventilation and air conditioning permits are now just a few clicks away for Jose Ochoa.

Ochoa, the marketing director for Jones Air Conditioning in Naples, used to have to wait in long lines at Collier County's permitting office. That hassle is now a thing of the past since the county started allowing applications for some permits online.

"We submit everything and they issue us a bulk amount of permits. It's very convenient," he said. "We're able to have those permits in hand quickly to complete the job and get it inspected."

For the last six months, the county has offered online permitting for things like residential demolitions, fences, minor plumbing, HVAC replacement and re-roofings. But while it is convenient for people like Ochoa, not all building professionals can say the same.

Collier County hopes to change that.

The county is working on a system that will allow them to bring that convenience to everyone needing permits, including new residential and commercial construction building permits.

"We're limited in scope (right now). There is no real way, with the current software we have, to accept plans from a licensed engineer," said Jamie French, director of operations and regulatory management for the Collier County Planning and Regulation Department.

County staff, as well as members from the building industry community, have been working with Sire, a Utah-based software firm, to develop a way for building officials to submit permits electronically for review by county staff.

The work on the program has been ongoing since the spring of 2011, said Jim von Rinteln, a plans reviewer for the county who has been working on the project. Von Rinteln said electronic permitting is the "wave of the future." Several Florida counties are completely electronic, including Osceola County and Lee County, which launched ePlan — its electronic permitting — in February.

"In 10 years, most everything we do will be digital," he said. "We don't expect all of our customers to change right away. We think when we launch this, only about 5 to 10 percent of our customers will use it. But we know that percentage will grow."

Industry leaders said they are excited about the changes.

In addition to not having to apply for permits in person, businesses will no longer have to pay a printer for blue prints, von Rinteln said. That's a significant cost savings in just paper, county staff said, considering plans can be $60 per copy and the county requires five copies to be submitted with any building plan review.

"It's a win-win for everybody," said Kathy Curatolo, executive director of the Collier Area Building Industry Association. "For us, it saves time and money."

The new program will also allow the various agencies that have to weigh in on permitting at the county level, including electrical and plumbing, to do so at the same time, providing faster service, French said.

Faster service will also help the permitting office, which has seen an increase in construction growth over the last three years, French said. In 2010, Collier County saw building permit requests increase by 22 percent. Building permit requests increased 12 percent last year and county officials expect 8 percent growth in new construction this year.

"I am a big believer in that, if you make things easier, more people take advantage of it," said Theo Etzel, the CEO of Conditioned Air in Naples.

The county is able to consider a digital plan review because of a law passed by Florida legislators that went into effect last July. The law allows architects to submit plans with an electronic signature.

"It was the final piece," said von Rinteln. "We're always looking for better ways to do things, to troubleshoot, to make it easier, faster, cheaper."

The move will essentially keep the permitting office open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, county officials said. Although, von Rinteln admits, the county's clock on the permits will start when they are date stamped by a member of staff. So a request submitted Friday night will not be looked at by county staff until Monday morning, he said.

While von Rinteln said he thought bigger developers would come to use electronic permitting first, Claudine Auclair, a county business center manager, said she sees the value it will present to the smaller companies as well.

"A guy who is the owner of a small company usually has to come in the afternoon when there is a long line. He cannot come in at 8 a.m. because he has to be at the job site, giving instructions to his guys," she said. "This is going to help him."

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